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EARLY HISTORY OF THE GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
IN GIBSON COUNTY, INDIANA

Source: History of Gibson County, Her People, Industries and Institutions, by Gil R. Stormont. 
B. F. Bowen & Co., Inc., 1915.  pp 245-248.

After the close of the Civil War the armies, that had fought in that war to its successful conclusion, were disbanded and the soldiers returned to their homes to resume the vocations of civil life. But the fraternal tie that had been welded in the fire of battle was not severed by the disbanding of companies and regiments. There was a spirit of comradeship infused in the hearts and lives of those who had touched elbows in the line of battle and who bad shared in the privations and hardships of the camp and weary march, that was not dispelled by the separation and the laying aside of military equipments. There was a desire to maintain and perpetuate this fraternity and comradeship, and this desire soon found expression in a movement for an organization of veterans of the Civil war. Many organizations of companies and regiments were formed and reunions were held in various localities, and the enjoyment found in the meeting of comrades suggested a larger and more permanent organization of state and national character. From this suggestion the Grand Army of the Republic had its beginning.

Dr. B. F. Stevenson, a surgeon in the volunteer service, living in Springfield, Illinois, was among the first to suggest the organization of the Grand Army of the Republic. At first there was little formality about the organization. There was no post or place of assembly and very little ceremony in the initiation of members. There was simply the giving of the grip and countersign and the subscribing to an obligation. While this beginning of the Grand Army was crude and informal, it suggested the possibilities of a permanent and effective organization. It suggested the idea of a ritual and a constitution, with rules and regulations and other things necessary for effective work.

It was sometime during the year 1866 that Dr. Stevenson prepared the manuscript for the first ritual, rules and regulations for the Grand Army, on the suggestion of Governor Oliver P. Morton, of Indiana. It was through the instrumentality of Governor Morton that this was printed and put into shape for effective use, and it was first used for the muster and organization of posts in Indiana. The first department organized under this constitution was the Department of Indiana.

An organization of the Grand Army, or rather a start for such an organization, was made in Princeton in August, 1866. This organization was made in the informal manner already stated. Among those who were instrumental in starting this primitive Grand Army were Col. James T. Embree, Capt. William M. Duncan, Capt. Frank Embree, Lieut. Robert M. McMaster, the writer of this sketch, and several others.

It was sometime in the early part of 1867 before there was an effort made to organize a post in Princeton under the new ritual and constitution, and the first muster of recruits and the first post organization was made by Major-Gen. Nathan Kimball, then department commander of Indiana. The meeting was held in the old court house and there was quite a large attendance of the boys, many of whom had but recently exchanged their suit of blue for one of civilian style. A good many of those present on this occasion had taken the obligation under the old form and it was not required of them that they should come in by the ritual route. They were entitled to seats on the ground floor and enjoy whatever there was of entertainment in this first muster of recruits. And there was entertainment in abundance, as can be verified by any who were fortunate enough to occupy ground floor seats.

The paraphernalia and necessary appointments for initiation ceremonies under the old ritual was of a character to make one's hair stand on end if he should unexpectedly meet the outfit on a dark night all alone. That old-fashioned gable-roof coffin, with the grinning skeleton lying therein, was not the most cheerful sight one might desire to see while going through a dark and lonely woods. The provisions for muster of recruits under the old ritual were intended to be profoundly solemn and impressively scary. This was the effect produced sometimes, but not always. Sometimes the effect was otherwise and very funny. In this first muster in the old court house the funny business prevailed, as will be easily understood by those who remember the characteristics of George W. Harrington, at that time a resident of Princeton. George officiated as one of the guards at this first muster and escorted the recruits through the various mysteries of initiation. The recruits, being blindfolded, were expected to feel that there was something very solemn about the ceremony, especially when they were required to kneel by that coffin. But if they could have had a peep through their blinds long enough to have seen some of the antics of George Harrington they would have had a different opinion as to the deep solemnity of the occasion.

This first Grand Army post was duly organized in accordance with that old ritual, with D. Frank Embree as post commander, W. M. Duncan as adjutant. They secured a suitable place to hold their meetings in a room over the Small hardware store, on the cast side of the public square, and the order prospered for a year or more, increasing in membership to about one hundred and fifty.

There was quite an interest in the organization of posts of the Grand Army throughout the state and in other states about this time and the membership of the order increased rapidly during the years 1867 and 1868. But there was a decline in the years following and the organization was on the wane. This was largely on account of politics, which was a predominant feature, of the order at that time, and it was intended to be such by those who were chiefly instrumental in the formation of its constitution and ritual. It was, in fact, largely in control of some who were allied with one of the leading political parties of that time and easily degenerated into a political machine, operated and controlled by designing politicians for selfish purposes. Of course such an organization would find no favor among Soldiers who were inclined to affiliate with any other political party, and was not in the favor of many whose sympathies and affiliations were with the patty largely controlling the organization. A secret political organization, however worthy its purpose or its individual can never be a permanent success, or have the approval of true and loyal American citizens.

A few of the posts in this and other states maintained their organization during these years of decline and these formed the nucleus for the greater Grand Army of the Republic that the world knows today. Wiser heads gathered in council, a new constitution, and ritual, and new regulations were prepared by which politics was absolutely prohibited in the order. Fraternity, charity and loyalty were made the cardinal principles, the "broad foundation stone on which the order rests." These new rules and regulations, with the revised and more sensible ritual, were adopted in the early seventies and met with the approval of the intelligent soldier citizens, and from that time the Grand Army took on new life. It increased in membership rapidly from that time until it became the greatest semi-military organization the world has ever known, commanding the respect of citizens regardless of party, creed or nationality.

The Grand Army post in Princeton, organized under the old regulations, was affected by the unwise policy that controlled the order and the post went into decline about 1868 or 1869. No meetings were held, the records of The post were scattered or lost, the paraphernalia of initiation, including the gable-roofed coffin with the skeleton, were knocked about in the old post room for a time and finally disappeared. And this was the ending of the first Grand Army post in Princeton.

There was one duty, however, that the soldiers of the Civil War bad taken upon themselves that was not permitted to fall into decline. That was the custom of decorating with flowers the graves of deceased comrades on the 30th day of May each year. This custom was inaugurated the year after the close of the war, by a few of the soldiers and their friends, informally, going to the cemetery with baskets of flowers. This became more of a formal ceremony after the organization of the Grand Army, when there was a procession with the band leading to the cemetery. Then a return to the court house yard where appropriate speeches were made. When this first Grand Army post was disbanded the custom of decorating soldiers' graves was not wholly neglected, but for the lack of some organization to take charge of the arrangements they were not always as appropriate and seemly as the solemnity of the occasion would require. For instance, the Decoration day services held May 30, 1882.

On that occasion the following program was carried out: Prayer by Rev. J. E. Jenkins; addresses by T. R. Paxton, M. W. Fields, R. M. J. Miller and others. Then the procession was formed, headed by the Princeton band, and marched to the cemetery where the soldiers' graves were decorated by a company of little girls. Then they marched back to the court house square, where the procession was disbanded, This was all very well so far. But in the evening it is noted that there was a lawn festival given on the court house square, under the auspices of somebody with more enthusiasm than sense of propriety. That this was true was evidenced by a display of fire works, toy balloons, and other Fourth of July incidents, as a part of the evening's entertainment. This sort of entertainment, as a finale to the day set apart as sacred to the memory of soldiers who had died for their country, was not the most pleasing to their friends. To those who had a proper conception of the day this order of hilarity had too much the semblance of the traditional Irish wake.

The impropriety of this manner of observing Memorial day was remarked by all who had a proper conception of its sacred character, and this, no doubt, had something to do with turning the thoughts of the soldiers to the necessity of reorganizing the Grand Army post. 

 

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